Saturday, September 24, 2016

Camp Out (another chapter from my new novel)

We set the pup tent up in my back yard and pretend like we’re camping out some place else.
Dave doesn’t go to Boy Scout camp with me, but wants to. I want to camp out in Garret Mountain, but this as far as my uncles trust me to go after all the trouble I’ve caused lately.
Dave is so tall his feel make the back of the tent bulge, so I make him turn around so that his feet poke out the flap, not cold or wet, this time of year, still he complains saying, “This is stupid.”
And it is. We can’t make noise or set off the fireworks Dave brought up from his basement and planned for the trip. One of my uncles or even my grandmother pokes a head out the back window expecting us not to be here, which I wouldn’t be if I could figure out a way to pack up everything up and get it out of the yard before they found out.
I have big plans, like I had back in the third grade when I stole my uncle’s money and stored it in a shoe box my grandfather made for my mother just after the family moved into the big house after the war, plans then for a giant tree house where I could bring my mother after I managed to buy her out of the asylum where my grandfather, grandmother and uncles put her, burning the drawings I made and even some of the money when my uncle found the money missing and naturally figured I was the one who took it.
This time, I  want to tell Dave, I won’t get caught, no tree house, no box in the back of my closet with the cash, no elaborate drawings I’ll need to burn to keep secret.
I keep the money the money in my pockets and my plans in my head – only I can’t keep it secret from everybody, needing to tell Dave to see if he want to come along with me when I go to California since he’s nearly as unhappy at his home as I am in mine.
But I can’t get a word in with all his bitching about how cold his toes feel sticking out the flap of the ten and how all he wants is a new CB radio he can’t afford so he can talk to the truckers on the highway.
His mother brings his father home once a month so he can sign over his veterans’ check, a ritual so predictable Dave makes a point of not being home if he can help it, not running away like I do, just not being there, hiding in the basement with the old paint cans and the stench of heating oil with his little brother, Dennis, sneaking down to bring him fool scrounged from the refrigerator, miraculously to reappear once his mother left to bring his father back to the Veterans’ hospital, hidden away out of shame, neither of us daring to stare too long into the fact of madness for fear we might go mad as well (though Dennis tells me on the sly that sometimes Dave will sneak to meet his father when his mother is absent, and to bring him cigarettes and booze from the liquor store Dave’s mother forbids his father to have.)
Maybe that’s what connects us, his father and my mother, his coming to camp out with me his perfect excuse this time although his mother believes I steer him in a direction she does not approve of, he standing too tall too often when in my company, the way I sometimes do with my uncles even at the threat of being beaten, taking back a bit of the life she stole from him on the excuse she cannot raise a family without his help, and so Dave or his brother, cook, clean, do laundry and such, while she does nothing.
But Dave hates having his toes feel cold, preferring the leftovers his brother snuck to the cellar to the chips I share in the tent, and the illusion we are somewhere we could be but aren’t, and the constant check from the house, and the voices calling to me, “Are you still there,” and me saying back; “where else would I be,” when we all know where I might got if only they check a little less often.
All Dave wants is a CB radio so he can hear the voices of the truckers coming and going to and from New York on the almost fully open highway a mile north of where we live, friends who are not really friends who keep him company late at night when his mother stares at her new Sony TV the veterans’ checks allowed her to buy.
He knows all the handles and all the handles know him, voices as vague over his cheap walkie-talkie as the voices my mother hears in the dead of night, all he want is to hear they clearly and have them hear him clearly, too.
And all I want is for him to hear me and to join me, not for an overnight indulgence in my back yard, but for a trip to a place where nobody can find us, where neither of us has to worry when and if mother or father comes home or is gone, or live with the constant scent of heating oil we both get when hiding in the cellar.
“I have a plan,” I tell him, when darkness has fallen finally filling the yard and my uncles or grandmother have shut off the back porch light, leaving us with the illusion of nobody watching.
Dave wants to know what kind of plan, having heard so many of my plans before, big and little plans, I come up with in the midst of night when sleep escapes me, moving his legs suggesting that his toes really hurt, when we linger on the edge of summer, and the chill outside is hardly a chill at all, the kind of weather we might need a sheet for, not a blanket.
I whisper the word “California,” and he moans. I ask if he’ll come with me if I go.
He has heard some variation on this so many time before he knows just what to say to bring me back to reality, saying we don’t have money for a trip like that, reminding me the last time I tried and how I had only two cents in my pockets when the Little Falls police picked me up and brought me home.
“I got money,” I tell Dave.
“More than two cents, I hope.”
“I got a lot more than that,” I say, touching my pocket and the roll of bills.
“You always say you have money when you don’t.”
“I always come up with it when I say I can get it. But this time I already have it.”
“Show me.”
I ease the bundle of bills out of my pocket, as gentle with it as I would a bird’s egg, and yet cannot help but squeeze, half believing it might blow away with a sudden gust.
Dave’s long face goes green, shaded by the glow of the bathroom light out the window at the back of the house through the wall of the tent. He’s never see so many bills in one place, except may be at the bank when his mother made the teller cash his father’s veteran’s check in small bills to make the amount seem greater than it was.
“Are they all 20s?” he asks, his voice hushed, knowing as well as I did I did not come up with the money honestly, and that at any moment someone might come out the back of the house and snatch it back.
“Not all, but enough,” I tell him. “Enough to get us on the road west. I’m sure we can come up with more once we’re on our way.”
Just where and from whom I can not say, assuming the road to the coast is paved with gold and all we need to do is pick up nuggets as we go along.
I’m not going to make the same mistake I made last time. Older now, I realize that an asylum is not a jail, and I cannot bail my mother out no matter how many veterans checks I collect, or how many wallets I slip cash out of, and she, as made as she is will knot know where she is or who she is with and will keep trying to end it all just as she does each time someone gets her out.
We need to go where Dave’s radio voices go, out beyond the boundaries of the city, taking the same long road to the same distant destinations, following the dotted line on the service station road map that says this road goes to that particular place, places I dream of nightly and all we need to do is put on feet on that road and go west.
The bathroom light goes out. The glow that illuminates Dave’s face fades, and he seems at that moment as distant and ghostly as the voices of the truckers he follows on his walkie talkie.
We don’t talk much after that. The night grows around us, at first silent as the all too familiar traffic along Crooks Avenue fades away, and then it fills with more disturbing sounds we do not normally allow ourselves to hear at other times, the movement in the branches of the cherry tree, the wrestling of raccoons along its trunk, the chatter of crickets and other voices, mysterious and unnervingly loud in their own right with the sense that our being out in their world somehow alters their way of life.
Sleep escapes me; I put the bundle of bills back in my pocket, like I might an egg, thinking that in the morning it might hatch into something grand, grow wings, and left me into the air in a flight away from here and the life I live.
Dave has no trouble sleeping, the sound of his snoring filling the interior of the tent like a counter beat the those beyond us in the night, comforting in its own right, creating a wall of sound against the darkness we can hide behind until dawn arrives.
I don’t recall falling asleep; I just stir out of it with the arrival of dawn. Dave is gone. The flap out of which his toes stuck is open so I can see the yard, the fence, and a portion of my neighbor’s house. I think Dave must have woken in the middle of the night, and window me to comfort him, he panicked and fled for home. I see only the impression he’s left on the blanket next to mine, like the trail of a snake, long, narrow, uncertain, marking his slithering passage out, telling me with his absence that he does not intend to share my dream and I will once again have to make the trek west on the highway on my own.
When I feel for the egg in my pocket; it’s gone.
It is not in the blanket or in the grass outside, or anywhere near the tent I demolish as a grope, the panicked image of my uncle coming out in the middle of the night flashing in my head, finding it, taking it away and waiting now in the kitchen for me to come in where he plans to confront me.
Inside the dusty old kitchen, around the table littered with half empty coffee cups and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, my uncles sit, struggling more with the aftermath of sleep than any petty crime I might have committed. The comment sourly about my night in the yard and how foolish I am for being so uncomfortable when I have a perfectly good bed in my third floor bedroom unoccupied.
Then, I think of Dave, and how he must have found the buddle, and taken it to keep it safe. I can’t call him to ask. His mother’s phone got shut off for lack of payment, and even when it works,  his mother is always the one who answers, the one who always asks what I want in a tone suggesting I am looking to get Dave in trouble – again.
Dave and I sometimes talk through the walkie talkies we brought in the cheap shop in downtown Paterson. But the signal is so weak we can barely hear each other above the static and I have to shout; this is not something I want to shot about and be overheard.
Still I try, and hear only static, if Dave made I reply, I can’t even hear the ghost of it.  So I have to go down to his house. I just can’t escape until I’ve done all the chores my uncles have assigned me, a few extra thrown in for their having let me camp out in the yard.
Dave lives slightly more than a block from my house, down Crooks and beyond Vernon, in an apartment above a jewelry store that once was an A&P, next to a liquor store where Dave buys his father booze and we buy cream sodas, and on a hot summer day, the smells of booze and the meat grinder from the old A&P waft up into Dave’s apartment.
When I get to the door downstairs, I find it locked, a rare occurrence, since the other tenant in the building, our former post man, lost his key.
I ring Dave’s bell, and hear its ring at the window three windows down from where I stand at the door. No feet respond, pounding down the inside stairs the way they usually do. The place is quiet like the night was quiet, still, yet not still, filled with secrets whispering back at me, I do not understand. So ring the bell again, and again, get a void as a response.
I can’t imagine where he’s gone off to, or his mother, or his little brother and sister, a sister too small to walk on her own. I go back around the corner to Vernon where Dave’s mother usually parks her beat up station wagon, Dave’s father bought before his illness. The space is vacant except for the glittering of fresh oil from its leaking engine.
I go home, taking refuge in my room, hovering over the plastic walkie talkie into which I speak from time to time, calling out Dave’s name into the airways nobody but me can hear.
Hours later, I hear Dave’s voice calling back, not full of static, loud, potent, floating above all the other ghosts we sometimes hear when the truckers pass by.
I call back. He speaks again, not to me, to the ghosts, who in turn can now hear him and speak back, finally about to reach him in his brand new CB radio.

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